We wouldn’t let the local power utility arbitrarily disconnect someone because it disliked their politics. So why would we let an online monopoly do it? Social media serves a vital role in today’s political system, yet we let unaccountable, monopolist businessmen ban people at whim.
Activist groups and NGOs live and die by social media these days, relying on it to attract new members, coordinate action, and spread their ideas. This gives the private owners of Twitter and Facebook a vast degree of power to decide whose voices get heard. Unaccountable, unrestrained power. And they aren’t shy about using it.
This would be troubling even if they tried to be fair in using it, but they’ve taken an activist approach, privileging people and ideas they agree with, while suppressing contrary voices. In late July, for example, Twitter ‘shadowbanned’ the GOP chairwoman, the president’s spokesman, and other prominent Republicans. Meanwhile, Google is now working with China to create a ‘censored search engine’.
Rather than working to free people and thought from oppression, the tech giants are increasingly cooperating with elites to manage and control public opinion.
Now Facebook has crushed an entire political movement in Brazil, the Movimiento Brasil Libre (MBL), a socially liberal, free-market movement. This was no fringe group — in fact, it spearheaded the protests that brought down corrupt President Dilma Rousseff. They’ve now been purged from Facebook and are scrambling for alternatives.
Facebook justified the decision by saying MBL was “a coordinated network that hid behind fake Facebook accounts and misled people about the nature and origin of its content, all for the purpose of sowing division and spreading misinformation.” Misinformation, like Fake News, has become a loaded term. It is very much in the mind of the beholder. And it’s poisonous to democracy for powerful, unaccountable businessmen to decide which voices are genuine and which should be silenced.
Social media is now a public good, serving as the nexus of our political discourse and activism. Judging from Amazon, YouTube, and Facebook, it’s clear that the Internet is evolving into a series of natural monopolies, with one hegemonic company for each category of website.
It’s time to treat them like the monopolies they are.